Blocking Mideast Peace
An Uncomfortable Line
by Eric Silver
Originally published 26 September 1997


The door of Irving Moskowitz's home near the Montefiore windmill in Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem's first Jewish neighborhood built outside the ancient walls a century ago, was barred and bolted. The shutters were sealed. A gossipy neighbor said the owners were seldom there, two or three days at a time, then off again.

It was noon on Friday, Sept. 19, barely 14 hours after three Jewish tenant families had evacuated houses bought by the Miami-based bingo magnate in the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amud on the other, eastern side of the Old City.

Earlier in the week, Moskowitz had stood in that gritty, neglected urban village on the flank of the Mount of Olives, hammering a mezuzah on a door post and telling the world's TV cameras that this was where "we" are making "our" home. Yet the truth was that as soon as he had signed a face-saving deal with the government of Israel, he was on the plane back to Florida in time for Shabbat.

His swift departure reinforced the deep resentment felt by many Israelis, including some on the right and center of the political spectrum, at this transatlantic millionaire's latest intrusion in their fate. His initiative was undermining Binyamin Netanyahu's hopes of convincing Madeleine Albright that he was genuinely seeking peace with the Palestinians; was playing into Yasser Arafat's hands by switching the international focus back from Islamist terror to Jewish settlement; and was frightening even more Israelis away from shopping malls and markets targeted by the Hamas bombers.

The Jerusalem Post, which has often championed a right of Jews to live anywhere in the ancestral homeland, commented in an editorial: "It is clear to all that the motives of those who moved into Ras al-Amud are not to promote Jewish-Arab harmony, despite Moskowitz's talk of building a well-baby clinic for Arab children, but to assert Jewish sovereignty with their physical presence.

"Such a move is unnecessary. Just as secular Jews do not need to move into [ultra-Orthodox] Mea She'arim to prove that Israel is a modern, democratic state, so too is there no need for Jews to move into the heart of Arab areas of the capital to prove Israel's hold on Jerusalem."

A Post cartoonist, Meir Ronen, showed a skullcapped Moskowitz steering the good ship "Jerusalem," while Prime Minister Netanyahu fumes in the passenger seat.

The Ras al-Amud episode has provoked Israelis to draw an uncomfortable line -- yes, we want your greenbacks, but, no, we can't let you make our life-and-death decisions.

Netanyahu, who launched his career on the back of American donors wooed while he was still a diplomat in Washington and New York, diffidently reminded Moskowitz that it was the sovereign government of Israel which must choose where to settle Jews in Jerusalem, not individuals, even if (as in Moskowitz's case) they have bought the land and have a legal right to develop it.

Yossi Sarid, leader of the leftist Meretz opposition party, was less inhibited. No one has ever accused Sarid of taking money from Irving Moskowitz. He urged the police to stop Moskowitz leaving the country. "It is totally unacceptable," he told me, "that a foreigner comes to Israel and acts like an elephant in a china shop. If everything blows up, he will not be here to be blown up with us. He endangers my life, the lives of my loved ones, the lives of the whole nation. That's why I asked the police not to let him leave, so that he will stay with us, but I know that he won't."

Campaign financing has emerged as a major secondary issue, again churning up the muddy waters of Israeli-Diaspora relations. It has been widely reported in the Israeli press that Moskowitz had bankrolled Netanyahu, Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. These were the three coalition politicians who could have stopped the Ras al-Amud adventure but didn't. Was this pay-up time? Kahalani, a hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, negotiated the unstable compromise that allowed Moskowitz to evacuate the settler families but leave a minyan of 10 yeshiva students behind, ostensibly to guard and renovate his property.

Moskowitz admitted, in an interview with Yediot Aharonot in August, that he had given money to Netanyahu, but he did not disclose how much or when. The prime minister's spokesman, Shai Bazak, denied that he had received any financial support during the 1996 election, which, under a 1994 law, would have been illegal. Bazak would not, however, discuss any earlier donations.

Kahalani confirmed that Moskowitz had donated to the "Golan for Israel" campaign, which evolved into his Third Way Party. The party chairman, Yehuda Harel, told me that the sum was less than the $1 million quoted by Ha'aretz. But other Third Way activists insist that it was in that region. (Foreigners may donate to movements but not to registered parties. New contenders, such as the former Soviet prisoner Natan Sharansky, often postpone announcing that they intend to run for election until they have raised a campaign chest.)

Olmert denied that he had received "a single penny" from Moskowitz for his 1993 mayoral campaign, but the two men are close political friends. Olmert shares the American's ambition to blur the invisible border between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem. Moskowitz is named as a major donor on a plaque near the entrance to the archaeological tunnel alongside the Temple Mount, which sparked a bloody Israeli-Palestinian confrontation a year ago this month. Olmert was the man who pressed for it to be opened.

Unlike his predecessor, Teddy Kollek, Olmert treated the unruly Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, for which Moskowitz bought houses in the Moslem quarter of the Old City, as a legitimate settlement group. More recently, he told me that he had influenced Moskowitz to put Ras al-Amud on a back burner. Neither the government nor the city needed another conflagration at this delicate time. Moskowitz, it turned out, had his own imperatives.

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